Bosnia Serb Chief ‘Puppet on a String’ to Putin, Envoy Says

(Bloomberg) -- The top international envoy to Bosnia-Herzegovina accused the country’s Serb leader of playing into the hands of Vladimir Putin, who he says is exploiting the Balkan nation’s ethnic divisions to divert attention from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who has intensified efforts to to cut ties with the rest of Bosnia, has become a “puppet on a string” to the Russian president, Christian Schmidt, who was appointed as the United Nations-backed High Representative in 2021, said in an interview.

As European governments have imposed ever-tighter measures to isolate Russia after its assault on Ukraine, Putin has sought to strengthen ties with Serbian allies in the Balkan region. Putin has hosted Dodik, himself targeted by US and UK sanctions, three times since the war began in February of last year.

“There could be an interest to raise a hot spot crisis outside Ukraine — not militarily but politically,” Schmidt said via video link on Wednesday of Putin. “But that doesn’t serve the interests of Bosnia-Herzegovina or the people in Republika Srpska,” he said, referring to the Bosnian entity Dodik leads.

Under a US-brokered peace agreement that stopped a bloody civil war in 1995, Bosnia is comprised of two entities, Republika Srpska and a Muslim-Croat federation, linked by a weak central government in Sarajevo. As high representative, Schmidt has broad authority to maintain order and hold the nation of 3.3 million together.

European governments have accused Dodik of threatening that order with ever more provocative efforts to secure autonomy for the Bosnian statelet. Under his leadership, lawmakers in 2021 voted for a plan to wrest much control over areas including the judiciary, taxation, education, and security in an effort to reverse a move toward centralization overseen by Schmidt’s predecessors.

Read more: As World Watches Ukraine, Another Part of Europe Embraces Russia

The efforts reached a new level in June when the legislature in Republika Srpska’s capital, Banja Luka, approved a law rejecting the country’s Constitutional Court authority. Schmidt responded by revoking the legislation.

Dodik was unmoved, and the standoff escalated this month when the Bosnian Serb leader was charged by prosecutors in Sarajevo with defying Schmidt’s decisions, an act punishable by up to five years in prison. Dodik’s office rejected the indictment.

For his part, Dodik has assailed Schmidt as an “unelected foreigner,” arguing that Schmidt’s 2021 appointment is illegitimate because Russia and China had supported a failed resolution in the UN Security Council to end the high representative’s office.

“Christian Schmidt is not the High Representative, therefore his office does not exist,” Dodik told reporters in Banja Luka last week.

The claim is dismissed by western allies — who cite the 1995 Dayton Agreement — and Schmidt, who pointed to the central role of Bosnia’s Constitutional Court as part of that treaty.

“There is no way to negotiate about the Constitutional Court,” Schmidt said.

In addition to sanctions already imposed on Dodik, Schmidt said the possibility of EU measures is “not excluded.” Steps to cut aid from EU member states to Republika Srpska are also underway, with Germany earlier this month ending four infrastructure projects as a way to pressure Dodik.

“I expect and hope that we will see in the next two weeks some kind of rapprochement to the standards of European requirements,” Schmidt said. “If not, there could come the time when there will be a need to show the limits to Mr. Dodik.”

Schmidt’s efforts to hold the line in Bosnia has placed him at the center of the nation’s once-warring factions. He made a public display of his impatience at an event a year ago, cracking when pressed on perceived inaction over an election law.

“Rubbish — full rubbish!” the Bavarian erupted. “We are not here just to make political games.”

(Updates with Dodik quotes from ninth paragraph.)

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